Panama again

“Panama’s newly elected president is making a big impression,” writes Editorial Assistant Rebecca Tyre from the Panama capital this morning.

“Ricardo Martinelli, of the Democratic Change party, was sworn in as president on July 1 and has so far shocked the entire nation.

“He’s been keeping his campaign promises!

“Everyone in the country is long familiar with Martinelli’s name. He’s a successful businessman who owns one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains (Super 99). The big idea of his campaign was summed up in his slogan, ‘Other politicians enter politics poor and leave rich.’ He was speaking to the high corruption levels of previous governments. Martinelli, on the other hand, entered politics rich. To make the point, he’s keeping but US$1 of his nearly US$11,000 monthly salary, giving the rest away to local charities.

“Sure, Martinelli doesn’t need the peoples’ money, as he was already wealthy when he entered the Palacio de las Garzas (Herons’ Palace, Panama’s version of the White House), but his gesture has made a big impression on the working-class people of this country.

“During the campaign, Martinelli insisted that there is no reason for poverty in Panama, given the country’s riches. Damiana, a friend in Las Tablas whose husband supports the family with what he catches fishing, says she and other struggling Panamanians truly appreciate Martinelli’s gesture. In all her 60 years, she told me, she’s never heard of another Latin American president donating his salary to charity.

“My neighbor in Las Tablas is a member of the National Police force. Martinelli won him over when, his first week on the job, the new president raised police salaries by US$100 a month, a move intended to support Martinelli’s antipoverty and anticrime platforms. The country’s 20,000 police officers now earn an average of US$420 a month. An additional US$100 a month may not sound like much, but it is doing a lot to help the families of the police officers.

“Martinelli’s government has likewise approved a US$100 monthly payment for any citizen over the age of 70 who does not receive a pension. More than 11,000 elderly Panamanians have signed up for this program so far, including a friend’s father, Jose. He says the US$100 a month will buy the heart medications he was having a hard time affording before.

“In a direct attempt to combat the country’s growing crime rates, the new president has imposed a curfew for minors. Kids under the age of 18 must be in their homes from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The first day the curfew went into effect, 86 minors were arrested.

“Martinelli has also cracked down on some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen who had not paid taxes they owed for property they own on Panama City’s Amador Causeway. The previous administration had ordered those companies to pay their taxes, but the order had never been enforced. Then Martinelli took office. He didn’t mess around but set about immediately to have structures owned by these groups bulldozed. The businesses in question are now making attempts to pay their overdue tax bills.

“As I said, Panamanians are shocked. What kind of politician keeps his campaign promises?

“And Martinelli makes it clear that he’s just getting started. Panama is suffering serious growing pains as a result of the boom times of the past decade. The traffic in Panama City, for example, is out of control frustrating. Rush hour can seem to extend for 24 hours of every day except Sunday. To help ease the city’s horrendous traffic problems, Martinelli says he wants to build a subway system. This is an ambitious idea that some think will never come to fruition. At a minimum, certainly, something like this would be years away. But the point is that Martinelli has big plans for little Panama and is moving quickly and decisively to progress them.

“At this critical point in Panama’s history, this guy is stepping up and taking action.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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